Gays in the Bible
Are Evangelical Christians going all liberal on gays? It used to be you weren’t even allowed in many churches, if that’s what you were. Now, you’d be welcomed!—if you’re celibate, in therapy, and praying for a miracle. “Many assume that lifelong celibacy is the only option for believers with same-sex attractions,” writes Christopher Yuan in his 2018 book, Holy Sexuality and the Gospel, but “we also shouldn’t discount the possibility that God can do the improbable.”
Just—keep on praying. Or how about this? Let’s learn about the many amazing gay scenes and themes in the Bible.
Ishamel ‘mocks’ Isaac
But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son . . .” —Genesis 21:9–10
Christianity likes to imagine gay sex happening earlier in Genesis. But scholars do their best to tell them: no, Noah wasn’t raped by his son Ham, and no, the Sodom thing isn’t about God getting gang banged. The men of the city demand to interrogate the divine guests, suspecting them of being spies, as Scott Morschauser shows in “‘Hospitality’, Hostiles and Hostages: On the Legal Background to Genesis 19.1–9”.
But Ishmael and Isaac is surely a sex scene. As David J.A. Clines notes: “That seems to be what the by-form qjx signifies in Gen. 21.9, where Ishmael is ‘playing’ with Isaac.”
The Bible is often indirect in references to sexual events, and this one is debated. The reader should understand, in that process, that traditionalists won’t like their hero Isaac getting raped.
I doubt he liked it either. And his mother sent Ishmael away? Sounds like something happened.
Jacob and the angel
So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. —Genesis 32:24
In the famous scene of Genesis 32:22–32, where Jacob hero comes upon an angel. The two ‘wrestle’ all night, and Jacob is winning, when the angel “touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man.”
That’s how translations of 32:25 read the scene. Ziony Zevit translates literally: the angel “touched the hollow of his yārēk, and struck (a powerful blow at) the hollow of his yārēk of Jacob while struggling with him…and he limped on account of his yārēk.”
So . . . what’s a yārēk? It’s a ‘thigh’ or ‘loin’, but we seem to get some specific information in verses like Judges 8:30: “And Gideon had seventy sons who came out of his yārēk” (cf. Gen 46:26; Exo 1:5).
The angel touched the hollow of his penis. Hmm. Note this isn’t a violent scene. Robert Alter notes the ‘touch’ language means to barely touch. “The adversary maims Jacob with a magic touch, or, if one prefers, by skillful pressure on a pressure point.”
Elizabeth Wyner Mark takes a step back and reads the scene again.
Everything about Jacob’s encounter with the mysterious being suggests passage. He is at a boundary, a river. He has taken his family to the other side. He is alone. Abruptly the “man” appears and for an entire night the two of them wrestle. Ramban proposes a startling alternative: perhaps the word for wrestle really means embrace. Ramban’s radical reading suggests the resonance of intimacy, suffused with struggle and violence, around this divine-human, male-male encounter. In fact, Jacob’s summary statement about the encounter may convey this complexity: I saw God, he says, panim el panim, face to face — to which Sarna comments: “‘Face to face,’ used only of divine-human encounters, may be an adversary confrontation or an experience of extraordinary intimacy.
Dinah the raped lesbian
Now Dinah, the daughter Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the women of the land. —Genesis 34:1
Feminist commentators have said for awhile that Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, might read as lesbian. She does leave the safety of men to go in search of women. As Janet Everhart notes, “Failure to explore seriously this option highlights the heterosexual bias of most readers.”
So exposed, Dinah is raped. The way it’s translated you’d think her rapist, Shechem, really loves her. But this is all about power. A marriage would put him into the family of Jacob.
There’s more to Dinah’s story. A textual oddity exists in how she was born from her mother Leah. The translations smooth it out into something like: “Some time later she gave birth to a daughter and named her Dinah.”
The verse actually says, “And afterwards she bore a daughter”—without saying what came before. “What does afterwards mean?” the Talmud asks. The rabbis had a hunch. Jacob was to have twelve sons, but ten had been born already. When Leah became pregnant, she’d see her sister Rachel—unable to conceive so far—was about to be left out.
In this rabbinic reading, Leah prays to God, and, as Dalia Marx summarizes: “the fetus in her womb turned into a girl, namely Dinah, whereas Rachel, who was supposed to give birth to a daughter, had a son — Joseph. This midrash explains two phenomena: Dinah’s ‘masculine’ exit from the tent, and Joseph’s latent femininity.”
Though speculative, this idea has a lot going for it. In the Bible we do see exchanges of identity as sacrificial acts: from Jonathan and David, to Jesus and humans (2 Cor 5:21). It’s a profound act of love.
I like to think of Dinah and Joseph as the Bible’s origin myth for gay and lesbian people! A prayer to God answered because it was motivated by true sisterly love—and a weird drama that engenders puzzlement and violence.
Joseph the feminine man
If Dinah and Joseph have exchanged identities, she becoming masculine and he feminine, it doesn’t seem to work out for either. Her rape and Joseph’s brothers’ selling him into slavery are both hate crimes.
Jacob is definitely somewhat girly. He’s beautiful—the language is the same as used for his mother. And what’s going on with that special coat? A later reference seems to establish it as a female garment. And he cries a lot.
As Robert A. Harris details in a 2019 paper “Sexual Orientation in the Presentation of Joseph’s Character in Biblical and Rabbinic Literature,” Joseph is read in Jewish tradition as effeminate to transgender. In rabbinic stories he’s wearing makeup and curling his hair, having sex with boys and working as a male prostitute. He doesn’t have sex with Potiphar’s wife because that’s . . . not really his thing.
In the Bible itself, Joseph does appear to have two sons with his Egyptian wife, but it’s a little weird. His father Jacob adopts them, and his words in Genesis 48:6 are eerie: “Any children born to you after them will be yours…”
As Harris notes, Joseph doesn’t have later children. It’s a riddle for sure, but I get the impression that Joseph’s true legacy is spiritual: his beauty, feelings, his femininity, his demand for justice, and his magical ability to morph his identity—infuse the human race.
Moses and YHWH on Sinai
Why does Moses go up the mountain, and when he’s gone, the Israelites get very nervous, then make a golden calf and start having sex? As David Ben-Gad HaCohen notes: “The terminology used in Exodus 32 implies that the Israelites were involved in group sexual promiscuity.”
For a Christian reader, the familiar narratives read as surreal. You don’t know why they happen and don’t try to figure them out! If sex and idolatry happen, it’s just because humans are bad, or something.
So here’s a reading from Gershon Hepner’s Legal Friction: Law, Narrative, and Identity Politics in Biblical Israel (2010). In the ancient world, it was common for a deity to be encountered on top of a mountain. The usual way it went: a female ascends to find a temple, and there she’d find a bed. She’d have sex with a deity who’d visit her.
If that surprises you, it also surprised Herodotus, the ancient historian.
And these same priests claim — though it sounds incredible to me — that the god himself visits the temple and sleeps on the bed, just as the Egyptians claim that the same thing happens in Egyptian Thebes for there, too, the woman lies in the temple of Theban Zeus, and both women are said to engage in intercourse with no human men at all.
So say the Israelites in the Bible story are familiar with this concept: a woman goes up a mountain and has sex with a god. No problem. The problem is that, in the scene they’re witnessing . . . a man goes up the mountain. Is YHWH gay? Why does he want a boy to visit him? And Moses was “beautiful before God” since a baby (Exo 2:2; Heb 11:23; Acts 7:20).
The dancing and sex that happens, as HaCohen notes, seems to be “a ritual where the divine couple, El (represented by the calf/bull) and Asherah (El’s wife), are being worshiped together.”
How about this: the Israelites have a gay panic. The outbreak of sex is a ritual effort to restore ‘heterosexuality’ as the divine connection.
If that’s surprising, here is the conceptual background. As the Dead Sea Scrolls illuminated, the key scene in Jewish theology is Genesis 6, when angels in a shocking violation take human women as wives.
These lower deities were only interested in the human female! Remember it’s only Eve who was approached in the Garden, not Adam. In the Bible, the human female is far more spiritual, and can have kids. The deities function as males. They don’t need human men—at all.
But then God comes along and says: I’ll work with men. God, as we often are told, works with the discarded, the forgotten, the left behind.
How did Paul put it? “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor 1:27).
Ehud the homosexual assassin
In Judges 3, the Israelites are being oppressed, and for some reason a ‘tribute’ of sorts has to be sent to the enemy overlord. So Ehud gets ready to go. He makes himself a little knife. It’s a strange knife. It’s little and straight, as opposed to the common style, as Marc Zvi Brettler notes, of curved blades.
We seem to be invited to think of the knife, he notes, as a “phallic symbol.”
When Ehud goes to meet the enemy overlord, Eglon, he hides the knife on his right side, where men don’t usually carry them. Ehud has a secret. He’s left-handed. In the Bible, that’s the feminine side.
The way you’ll find the passage in translation is wrong. Eglon, the king, is not ‘fat’. The same Hebrew word used in Daniel 1:15, to mean ‘healthy’. Karolien Vermeulen affirms the meaning is “health, beauty, and attractiveness of the animal, or human as in this case.”
So we have Ehud, with his knife, going to see Ehud, who is . . . healthy and beautiful. When the translator Robert Alter notes the “deliberate sexual nuance,” however, a Christian reader is probably . . . shocked.
“I have a secret message for you, O king,” Ehud says, and for some reason, the ‘handsome’ king sends all attendants away, so they’re alone. Geoffrey P. Miller notes that Ehud “gains the better of him by pretending to offer a homosexual liasion. The sexual imagery is so explicit that it hardly needs amplification.”
“The number of scholars who have resisted reading this as male-on-male sex is really quite astonishing,” says Christine Mitchell.
The king rises from his seat, and approaches. In the usual translations, Ehud moves for the kill. He takes out his ‘sword’ and “plunges it into the king’s belly” — as king’s bowels discharge.
The moral of the story is clear! The male with feminine ability has strange new powers that upset the “gender binary” in distressing ways.
David the beautiful boy
Both Jonathan and his sister Michel are said to love David, whose name means ‘beloved’—but David’s heart belongs to God. When I first read Theodore Jennings’ paper “YHWH as Erastes” in Queer Commentary and the Hebrew Bible (2001), I said: Surely . . . not.
Could God’s relationship with David be compared to Zeus and Ganymede in pagan mythology? Could it be understood as a divine love affair?
I began to see: it actually can’t be read any other way.
God loves David, takes care of him, guides him in a very unusual way. And David seems to go supernova with a bisexual sexual energy. It takes in Saul, Jonathan, and Michel, father, son and daughter all loving the boy in different ways—as David only loves God.
That’s boys for you!
There’s lots more gay stories in the Bible, whose details have been very misread by a Christian tradition that . . . basically can’t read? It keeps trying to go back to Leviticus 18:22, not even telling you the reference is so mysterious as to be unreadable. They side-step all that love stuff, as if there’s some kind of footnote that exempts people who love . . . people?
I think of all the gang of boys in 2 Kings 2:23–24 . . . picking on Elisha after Elijah has died. As Timothy R. Koch reads the scene: “the boys were no doubt echoing sentiments they had picked up from their elders, namely: ‘We don’t want any of your kind around here!’”
In the New Testament, there’s Jesus’ love of eunuchs in Matthew 19:12. Here we’d be again thinking of basically transgender figures—men able to contain both the male and female energies, like God. As J. David Hester reminds us in a 2005 paper, “Eunuchs and the Postgender Jesus,” the eunuch of the ancient world were “widely perceived as neither chaste nor celibate, but highly sexual and sexed beings.”
The Roman Centurion of Matthew 8:5–13 is certainly a gay love story, as Erik Koepnick traces. Does it awaken in Jesus a desire to find his own special boy? He meets his Beloved Disciple before long. Here, Theodore Jennings’ The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament is a guide.
Could Lydia, the early Christian convert in Acts 16:11–15, be lesbian? She takes Paul to her house, with no men in sight. That does happen with lesbians. Or Euodia and Syntyche, the two women Christian leaders in Philippians 4:2–3. A reading is possible, as Mary Rose D’Angelo notes in a 1990 study, “Women Partners in the New Testament,” that the pairing was “a sexual as well as a social choice.”
The book of Philemon is a gay love story, of a sort. As Joseph A. Marchal notes in a 2011 paper, “The Usefulness of an Onesimus: The Sexual use of Slaves and Paul’s Letter to Philemon,” the slave boy is called “good for use” which in context likely means “good for intercourse.” Paul is trying to get the slaveowner to see: Hey, this boy is your brother.
People were starting to realize they could love each other, across any lines of race, class, or sex. You’d be looking at a slave boy you were using, and realized . . . you loved him.
That’s the idea. “Love one another,” Jesus says. It involves men and women, back together, in every combination. That changes the world—maybe even, someday, Christianity!